Mamata Banerjee wants to give money to Durga Puja pandals but oppose the Centre on sending back Muslim Rohingya refugees.
In West Bengal, Durga Puja bonus just acquired a new meaning.
The Mamata Banerjee government offered Rs 10,000 each to 28,000 Durga Puja committees all over the state, and that’s Rs 28 crore. For many of the bigger pujas, this is chump change. Some spend about Rs 1-2 crore on their extravagant puja annually. But in a time of tumbling bridges, everyone needs a little pick-me-up, even an all-powerful Mother Goddess. And no one wants to snub a gift from Didi even if they do not quite know what to do with it. Maybe it can be used for social work later in the year, a puja organiser told the media. Didi threw in an extra bonus – a waiver of Kolkata Municipal Corporation taxes and fees for fire licenses for the pandals.
The high court had stayed the government’s decision after a petitioner said it was a violation of the secular structure of the Constitution. Meanwhile, probably for the first time ever, Didi faced heat from Muslim clerics and scholars who rallied on the streets saying if puja committees could get a hand out, why not the hundreds of madrasas. And, while they were at it, how about an increase in stipend for imams and muezzins? In a relief for Mamata Banerjee, the Calcutta High Court ruled that it could not interfere in what was in the end a legislative decision. But the Pandora’s Box has been opened.
In his book Why I Am A Hindu, Shashi Tharoor argues that in a country like India with a profusion of religions, secularism is really pluralism where the government respects all faiths and privileges none above the other. Unfortunately, instead of a happy family of all shades living together, we slide into competitive whataboutery, toggling between accusations of minority appeasement and majority appeasement.
Mamata Banerjee is used to the BJP flinging minority appeasement charges at her. It’s been one of their main campaign planks. But until now she could brush it off. Unlike Rahul Gandhi, she does not need to prove a point by going on pilgrimages and putting up Shiv Bhakt posters. In West Bengal, until now, the only religion that really counted was being Bengali and Mamata was unabashedly that, singing Rabindrasangeet in the Vatican City, bullying Bengali cultural figures into running for election, and churning out Bengali poems almost at whim. This Durga Puja too comes, as usual, with a theme song composed by her for a popular puja pandal, which her culture minister sang. She goes around drawing the eyes of the Goddess as part of infusing life into the image.
But after the BJP had a sword-rattling show of strength on the streets of West Bengal for Ram Navami, where its leaders carried swords and trishuls, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) got into the act as well. Mamata Banerjee conveyed her best wishes for the occasion. The TMC took out processions with pictures of Ram and her ministers led processions in their constituencies.
“It is important that the Trinamool Congress leaders had to bow down their heads to the Hindu population in the state. We welcome this,” said BJP leader Rahul Sinha claiming it as a victory for Lord Ram, Ram Navami and Hindutva. Before that, ahead of the panchayat elections, Trinamool Congress leader Anubrata Mandal felicitated 12,000 Hindu priests in Birbhum, a district where the BJP vote share has been rising. At that time BJP’s Dilip Ghosh had charged the chief minister with practicing “soft Hindutva”. The purohits demanded cows and pensions, citing benefits she offered maulvis and madrasas. “Previously the government had introduced pension for maulavis. Government should have introduced pension for us too. Now, the government is focused on this issue because of panchayat elections,” Sunil Sarkar, a priest told India Today.
Mamata protested, and said that she just loves everybody despite a budget crunch. “Some accuse me of Muslim appeasement. My question to them is whether loving Hindus means you have to hate Muslims. I respect and love all communities and religions. This country belongs to everybody.”
Mamata Banerjee now finds herself on a tightrope. She wants to give money to Durga Puja pandals but oppose the Centre on sending back Muslim Rohingya refugees. In an ideal world, that could be just a matter of principle. But Mamata Banerjee is also acutely aware that the BJP has taken second place in the panchayat polls. The BJP has a long way to go, but it’s looking to be the de facto opposition in the state, and forcing Mamata to react to its moves instead of ignoring it as a bit player.
Writing in DailyO, journalist Indrajit Kundu says the BJP is actively wooing the Matua community in south Bengal, many of whom are Hindus who fled Bangladesh. The RSS-backed organisations work actively in tribal areas by running schools and hospitals. Polarisation, writes Kundu, once gave Mamata “rich dividends”. But in a time of cow-politics, this is a Kamdhenu that does not keep giving. This time, the BJP is showing that it can play the same game and with much more money at its disposal.
Her Muslim vote bank might be solidly with her but the BJP has been making a play for it as well. “Minorities have less than two per cent reservation in Bengal as against 10 per cent in Gujarat,” said BJP minority morcha president Ali Hossain.
The rally by the imams and Muslim youth raising slogans against the Mamata government for the first time since she came to power must have left many in the Trinamool red-faced. “She has betrayed us and used us only as a vote bank,” Md. Quamruzzaman, general secretary of All Bengal Minority Youth Federation, told India Today TV. These polarisation gambits are not good news for the state. As the Basirhat riots showed, there is plenty of fishing to be done in troubled waters.
Mamata Banerjee’s puja bonanza, one which came out of the blue, feels like a belated attempt to strike a balance. But the BJP is quick to paint it as yet another attempt at appeasement politics although when it comes to polarisation, the BJP certainly cannot play innocent.
Net result is almost no one is appeased, certainly not Maa Durga who finds herself caught in an unseemly political tug-o-war.
Sandip Roy is a journalist, commentator and author.
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